DWAF turns weeds into jobs

Alien invasive plants (AIPs) have invaded over 10 million hectares of SA. Uncontrolled, this area could double in 15 years. Yet across the country’s most job-scarce and marginalised areas people are fighting back. Cornelia du Plooy attended the annual Weedbuster Week held in Pella in the Northern Cape.
Issue date 9 November 2007

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Alien invasive plants (AIPs) devastate biodiversity and agriculture, consume water and increase the risk of fire. The fight against AIPs is the driving force behind the annual National Weedbuster Week which is the awareness campaign for Working for Water (WfW). WfW is the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry’s (DWAF) flagship Expanded Public Works Programme. This year’s Weedbuster Week ran from 8 to 12 October, with the theme “Let’s Protect Our Natural Resources”, and was launched in the Namaqualand town of Pella in the Northern Cape. DWAF leads conservation T he WfW programme began in 1995 as an interdepartmental government poverty alleviation initiative, led by DWAF. While addressing AIPs’ devastating impact on the environment, WfW offers training, social development and employment to thousands of previously disadvantaged people across the country. According to WfW’s general manager Mandisa Mangqalaza, 149 335ha of invasive alien plants were cleared during the 2006/07 financial year, saving an estimated 48 million cubic metres to 56 million cubic metres of water for alternative uses annually. he programme employs and trains over 30 000 previously unemployed people a year.

It has also spearheaded a massive catchment rehabilitation programme with over 300 clearing sites. In addition it eradicates aquatic weeds using biological control agents, and has established fire awareness programmes in eight fire-prone SA regions. Deputy director of WfW Cape and WfW Free State Debbie Sharp says, “the programme spends about R10 million a year in the Northern Cape, creating around 780 jobs and clearing 14 500 initial hectares and 24 000 follow-up hectares of AIPs.” Mangqalaza explains AIPs are vigorous growers. When introduced into foreign countries they take over from indigenous species. “They’re highly adaptable and invade a wide range of ecological niches,” she says. “They have few natural enemies, and mature and bear enormous amounts of seeds within a few years. They grow faster than local plants, crowding them out and harming both the environment and the economy.” biggest concern is the vast amounts of water most AIP species consume.

Experts maintain it’s over 6% of all water runoff, or an annual 3,3 billion cubic metres. AIPs use nearly three times more water than commercial forestry. Sharp adds they destroy the ecological balance and obstruct the functioning of catchment areas. AIPs flee for the border P ella is a priority area in the lower Orange River’s catchment area, which is stressed by AIPs. Here, says Sharp, “the dominant AIP is the Prosopis glandulosa tree. These are Category One plants in terms of the Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act, which means they won’t be tolerated at all. They may not be planted or propagated, transported or allowed to disperse, and all trade in their seeds, cuttings or other propagative material is prohibited.” Most Category One plants produce copious seeds, which may be wind- or bird-dispersed, or have highly efficient means of vegetative reproduction. In Pella in particular, the WfW teams seem to fight a losing battle against Prosopis glandulosa on the banks of the Orange River.

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They flourish on the Namibian border on the opposite bank. At Weedbuster Week’s launch, water affairs and forestry minister Lindiwe Hendricks identified the need for a cross-border partnership with Namibia to control AIPs in the Richtersveld and Namaqualand, where WfW is providing assistance and technical support to the Ai-Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. “We’ll soon be negotiating with the Namibian government to form a working relationship to eradicate AIPs, which are a common problem in both countries,” she says. “It’s pointless to clear Prosopis glandulosa on the banks of South African rivers while they’re flourishing on the Namibian side.” Job creation in conservation The Pella clearing project was started in 2000 and will continue until AIPs there are under control. According to available research, this could take until 2020. Employment opportunities are limited in the area, but the programme currently employs 230 workers between Keimoes and Vioolsdrift. In Pella alone, more than 30 households benefit from employment in the programme.

Working on a tender basis, WfW teams must engage with landowners to secure clearing contracts. This can be a slow process. “Sometimes we only secure one contract a year, which makes it difficult to fully benefit from the programme,” says Cornelia Booysen of the Khâi-Ma clearing group. Hendricks says the onus rests on landowners and supervisors to ensure a steady flow of work. There’s much resistance to the WfW’s future exit strategy. Contractors indicate there are no other job opportunities locally. “The programme has made an immense financial difference to me and my workers,” says Hans Bosman, a WfW supervisor in the Kleinbegin area near Groblershoop. Hendricks says the programme hinges on an exit strategy. It gives workers valuable skills, but they then need to leave it and add value to other projects or start their own businesses. Their new skills will let them find alternative employment. But Eveline Diergaardt, also a Khâi-Ma group member, says the programme offers her a sustainable income she wouldn’t ordinarily have. “I’m 54. Apart from the skills I’ve learnt here, I can’t go and do other work.

It would make more sense to let us stay on.” Secondary industries The WfW has initiated a Secondary Industries (SI) programme to add value to AIP clearance. The programme’s three primary objectives are to maximise the economic benefits of the WfW programme by creating extra jobs through harvesting and processing the plant material; to offset the net cost of clearing to contribute to WfW’s sustainability; and to minimise potential negative environmental impacts, such as fire damage, by leaving less biomass behind after clearing. AIP wood is used for fuel and to make lampshades, furniture, key racks, and jewellery boxes. Programme participants have launched a project that makes computer memory stick cases from Prosopis glandulosa twigs. These products add value to the process and to the lives of those involved in the WfW programmes. Contact the Working For Water programme on 0800 005 376, or the Weedbuster toll-free helpline on 0800 005 376. For product information contact Sarah Polonsky on 021 405 2200. |fw